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New York needs to improve maternity leave policies

Having been inundated by the presidential candidates' rhetoric on the economic welfare of this great nation, I would like to respectfully offer some insight on an issue that is important to workers in New York State. While current employment practices cling to the prior century's model of a family being comprised of a breadwinner father and a primary caregiver mother, present day reality is far apart.

Consistent with nationwide trends, 70 percent of middle-class New York families have both parents working in order to meet the high cost of living. Moreover, two-thirds of women work and nearly half of these women have children under the age of 18 at home. Of these women, alarmingly, 40 percent have no paid sick days. While already facing the difficulties of balancing work and family, these difficulties are amplified considerably in the event a new child enters into their lives. More frequently than ever, modern households face a Hobson's choice -- keep your paycheck or care for your child.

Two questions are easily brushed aside in the milieu of modern-day distractions. Why does maternal leave matter now? And what is a realistic remedy for its current shortcoming? What won't be easy to brush off are the consequences of ignoring this fundamental issue.

It may be disconcerting to learn that in 2012, the United States ranks 31st of 43 developed countries in terms of being a good place to have a baby, and that it is one of only a handful of developed countries without a national maternity leave policy. While Denmark provides 100 percent of salary for 18 weeks of maternity leave and France provides 100 percent of salary for 16 weeks, the only thing the United States provides, on a federal level, is an assurance of job resumption after no more than 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

In light of the large percentage of households that rely on women bringing home a paycheck, stranding them with little more than assurances hardly creates an environment in which they can bond with and nurture their infant, let alone provide sufficient care, such as breast-feeding, which has been clinically proven to play a vital role in brain development and lifelong health of a child.

The results? Short-term marginal savings of about $50 per year on insurance premiums, and escalation of the burden on working women, leading to a future work force more prone to infirmity, social unrest and decreased productivity. Who will be to blame as America loses its competitive edge in the world arena in years to come? No one but ourselves.

Sadly, New York has not become a forerunner in this field, despite being ideally situated to use its existing legislative framework to provide, for example, $510 per week in parental leave benefits, in accordance with the established procedures of the Workers' Compensation fund. New York does not distinguish a mother taking maternal leave from any other employee taking a leave due to a disability. As such, an expecting mother may take short-term disability leave before and after birth, in total, not to exceed 12 weeks, receiving no more than $170 per week, pretax. This amount has not been adjusted since 1989, and at such a low rate, not many mothers could afford to take more leave time, even if available.

Additionally, while the federal Family and Medical Leave Act protects qualified employees from being terminated if they take unpaid leave to care for a family member, New York law provides no opportunity for anyone other than the mother to receive disability benefits.

The solution thus becomes twofold. First, expand who is eligible to receive disability benefits under existing Workers' Compensation law by amending the concept of "disability" to cover not only the mother, but any joint primary caregiver (whether spouse or qualified domestic partner, regardless of gender), perhaps relabeling it from "disability" to "parental leave." Second, offer an option to any employee seeking expanded coverage for parental leave to receive benefits reflecting a realistic living wage level of $510 per week through the payment of supplemental policy premiums.

This would mean that the current 60 cents per week paid solely by an employer for each employee would be increased to a total of $2 per week, paid in equal parts of $1 each per week by employer and employee. This amounts to a premium increase of only $20.80 for the employer, per year, and the optional $52 per year paid by any employee would more than justify itself in tripling the amount of benefits that employees can receive at one of the most critical times in their lives.


Maria Dahlmann holds a master's degree in clinical psychology and is currently enrolled in the Master's Program in Social Work at New York University's Silver School of Social Work.